- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

The current impasse with Congress over tax cuts raises a question mark over the future of President Bush’s domestic agenda. The administration needs to deliver some domestic reforms to show it’s not neglecting the domestic concerns of voters. One issue with wide appeal that plausibly can be passed is a prescription-drug plan for seniors. Broad Medicare reform is needed, but it’s unlikely that all the factions in the White House, the House, the Senate and both political parties can agree on a general plan before the election cycle begins next spring. The best way forward is to institute a prescription-drug law with some elements of larger reform.As it stands, Republican congressional leaders and administration strategists have slightly different visions of how to proceed. According to House leadership aides, Majority Leader Tom DeLay thinks that a limited stand-alone bill would be easiest to pass and least likely to get weighed down with numerous expensive amendments. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a practicing physician and member of the Health committee, favors a more comprehensive agenda — but agreement between the two seems imminent. Of primary importance is that House and Senate leaders already have agreed on a price tag of $400 billion over 10 years. The danger of partisanship sinking a plan is reduced because Democrat Sen. John Breaux — the ranking member on the special committee on aging — has been working with Mr. Frist throughout the process. Frist spokesman Nick Smith optimistically told us, “We’d like to see action before the end of the summer.”Although sources close to the White House say the president favors larger reform, his advisers clearly see the political benefit of a bipartisan, bicameral bill that will improve the quality and cost of prescription-drug coverage for America’s 40 million seniors — even if the reform is not as far-reaching as soon as Mr. Bush would like. Most likely, what would come out of the process is a drug-discount card, a credit for seniors not leaving their current benefit programs and perhaps some small elements of broader reform. Savings for seniors would be seen immediately. If the president signs such a package into law, it would be a political win for the Republican Party and a health-coverage advance for the public.Recent history is littered with failed attempts at passing prescription-drug coverage. The Senate couldn’t do it under Democrat leadership, and there never was a conference committee to consider the House-passed plans. Now, it’s in the realm of the doable. Depending on the poll, between 70 percent and 90 percent of Americans support a program to help seniors with the cost of prescription drugs. While this will be a substantial accomplishment, it alone does not assure — as Mr. Bush hopes it will — the long-term viability of the Medicare program. That would be an urgent legislative item for the president’s second term.

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